The End of (French) History

6 minute read

As a historian I like to think that I’m comfortable with the idea of fields dying. Maybe they’re reborn and live to fight another day (like diplomatic history, or so we all keep hearing), and maybe they never really die at all (like quantitative history, safely entrenched at Paris 1-Sorbonne).

But what about the old workhorse geographic fields like, say, French history?1 Unless you are Natalie Zemon Davis, being a French historian over the last five decades or more probably meant that you, well, went to France to do your research. And why did you go? You told your department chair and your grant funders and your colleagues that you had to get to the archives and the libraries, of course. But let’s be honest here: French historians don’t go to France to get to the documents. Instead we wed ourselves to documents that just so happen to be found only in France, “forcing” us to go there, usually when the weather there is super great, or at least super crappy at home. That’s why we became French historians in the first place. There are a few exceptions to this rule: the handful of self-loathing sad sacks we all know who hate wine and cheese and cigarettes, but this is no time to be cruel.

Even ten years ago, this amazing “system” seemed unassailable. It is now collapsing all around us. Today we’re already well past the tipping point where the availability of digital content has completely transformed the conditions of finding and amassing a corpus of evidence.2 The most apparent changes have taken place in the world of print. Although I work with all kinds of evidence, I love print. It’s easy to read. It invites us to imagine vast networks of authors and readers, presses and distribution. When researching my dissertation, I spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours happily ensconced in rare book reading rooms around the world, often wearing funny white gloves and draping squiggly heavy little book snakes across stiffly bound pages.3 Wasn’t it great the first time you heard the word serpentin? Maybe this sounds romantic. Maybe it sounds like hell.4 Either way, I’ll never do it again, and neither should you.

Of the 124 primary printed sources I ended up using in the book based on that dissertation, just under 70% are currently freely available online.5 Most can be found at Google Books or Gallica. All can be downloaded as crisp PDFs, and many are fully searchable and indexed thanks to the magic of OCR. The remainder can be trivially subjected to OCR using something like DEVONthink. One way to look at this transformation is to say, hmm, if I were beginning this project today I could do 70% of my research from my living room! I think the changes actually run much deeper. How much more sifting and hunting can a researcher do today, when the full contents of these texts are searchable, and not just the bibliographic metadata. As a scholar of the eighteenth century, I’ve long been lucky to be able to reap outsized profits from keyword searches of library catalogs, once seemingly transformative, now completely mundane. Seriously, you can find a lot just through a catalog search when all your books have crazy long titles like A Complete System of Cookery. In which is set forth, A Variety of genuine Receipts, collected from Several Years Experience under the celebrated Mr. de St. Clouet, sometime since Cook to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle. By William Verral, Master of the White-Hart Inn in Lewes, Sussex. Together with an Introductory Preface, Shewing how every Dish is brought to Table, and in what Manner the meanest Capacity will never err in doing what his Bill of Fare contains. To which is added, a true Character of Mons. de St. Clouet.

But today, of course, we can easily look inside all these books, before even deciding whether we want to read them. So much for using books as an excuse to come to France.

To the archives! Those messy, unscanned, poorly indexed manuscripts will save us all, won’t they? In 2003, it was a rare and novel sight to witness a researcher photographing carton after carton of documents. Within five years it was commonplace. Today, it’s the analog researchers who stand out in the reading room. But, you say, you still need to go to France to snap those photos! Well, yes, you do. But do you really still need to spend a year doing so? Six months? How about six weeks? Three would probably do. And if I and a few colleagues get our way, we’ll be well on the way to consolidating and sharing this vast, private wealth.6 Meanwhile many archives are slowly grinding away with their own digitization initiatives. These institutions hold, for now, but in an undeniably altered role. By necessity they’re now the centerpiece of the research trip, but they’re producing more evidence in less time. Did we spend all this time and treasure so that we could be reduced to human-assisted scanning stations?

It’s this compression and acceleration of the research process that’s perhaps most disorienting. As researchers limited by the laws of time, space, and the almighty dollar, we always have had to make choices about where to focus our attention, what to read, and what to leave behind. Today we’re offered a third option, which is essentially to put materials aside, into a digital queue, to be consulted at some later date. With a single click we can add these scans or photographs or digital books to software like DEVONthink, Zotero, or just pile them up on the old harddrive. It’s easy to assemble these little mini personal archives, and so we do. But after just a few weeks, what do we have? Probably more content than one would ever want examine for a monograph, let alone a conference paper. Quite possibly more than one could ever read. And then we’re on the plane enjoying a few more gratis coupes de champagne — you didn’t fly an American carrier, did you? — and racing back across the Atlantic.

Now the panic sets in. The forces at work here are so much deeper and more fundamental than the ideological or methodological mood swings that have resulted in the past birth and death of fields. We quite simply don’t need to be here anymore. I don’t worry so much about myself.7 I’ll keep coming back, one way or another. But the professional identity of the “French” historian is already undergoing a major transformation, with or without our willing participation. What does it even mean to be a “French” historian today, and what will it entail even just a few more years down the road? Who will choose France?

  1. I’m focusing on France, of course, because it’s what I know. That said, I don’t see any compelling reason why the argument that follows couldn’t apply to any number of national or transnational areas of inquiry. 

  2. Soon, I hope, it will also begin to make major advances in the way we perform analysis. 

  3. Not looking forward to all the incoming traffic from and searching for “stiffly bound pages.” 

  4. I also spent a grim couple of weeks living in a Motel 6, with my Welsh corgi, so that I could use Indiana University’s phenomenal collection of early cookbooks. This is not why one becomes a French historian. 

  5. The actual percentage is certainly higher. I didn’t look far beyond a cursory search of the usual suspects. 

  6. Socialism! 

  7. Denial! 

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